Workers crash Nabisco shareholders meet to confront Oreo CEO

LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. – Multinational food and beverage corporation Mondelez International, owner of Nabisco (the maker of Oreo cookies), held a shareholders meeting in Lincolnshire, Ill., May 18, just 50 miles from the bakery where, last year, they slashed 600 jobs, many of which were sent to Mexico.

It was the first time that Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld would answer to rank-and-file voices castigating her for what the Bakery Workers’ (BCTGM Midwest Region) International Vice President Jethro Head called Rosenfeld’s “corporate gluttony.” Dozens of protestors gathered outside the venue to rally in support of the workers who had been granted access to the meeting through union member-owned proxy shares.

“The support has been tremendous,” said Michael Smith, recently laid off four-year employee of the Nabisco plant in South Chicago. “Teachers, the UAW, Fight for $15 and our own locals have been supporting us, but this was the biggest yet. Atlanta, New Jersey, and every other [Nabisco] facility that has our union came out to support us.”

American flags waved, chants filled the air, and some ralliers took turns stomping on a package of Mexican-made Oreos.

“The company wanted 46 million dollars in cutbacks in perpetuity in order to get 130 million dollars in improvements at our plant and to keep the jobs in Chicago,” Smith told People’s World. “Meanwhile it was building a $180 million facility in Salinas, Mexico and never once asked any other facility in the US for those types of concessions.

“Which leads us to believe it was their intention to close the plant all along.”

Smith lost his job on March 23 and has since been “scrambling” to save the South Side home he and his wife have owned since 2014. They had lost their previous home in 2007 in the suburbs in the housing market crash.

His coworker, Henry Clark, has worked in the factory for 39 years. Even though he has the seniority required to avoid this round of cuts, he says the uncertainty and loss of coworkers he considers family has upended his work life.

“You work for individuals for five to 10 years, they’re family,” said Clark. “We’re going through a transition in facilities ‘downsizing’ they call it, but we’re also working without a contract because everyone has walked away from the table. Every two or three weeks it’s something different now, constant changes in production and too much uncertainty.”

Both Smith and Clark said they both asked questions of Mondelez CEO, Irene Rosenfeld.

Smith told the People’s World that he asked Rosenfeld, “What kind of message does it send that you’ve made $185 million in compensation and we were told it would take $130 million to upgrade our facility and keep our jobs? What kind of message does that send to consumers, to take 600 jobs and move them out of the country and then ask consumers to buy the product that used to be made here?”

Clark asked Rosenfeld about human rights and working conditions in Mexico.

Both questions spurred what Smith and Clark agreed were not satisfactory answers. Clark said that, in the case of the Mexican workers, Rosenfeld claimed to be treating them the same as American workers but, as Clark was quick to point out, “while paying them a lot less.”

The answer to Smith’s question connected some dots for him.

“Her response was that it was a global decision to downsize the workforce, to take the major brands and move them to Mexico. It was a very cold response,” he said.

On April 3, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton met with a group of workers including Smith.

“Speaking of cold, Madam Secretary Hillary Clinton came and we talked to her personally. She gave Irene Rosenfeld a phone call and she [Rosenfeld] told her to mind her own business.”

Next up for the two, their 599 laid off co-workers, and the union movement as a whole, is a major boycott of Mexican-made Nabisco products.

“We’re not advocating a total stop on Nabisco products, but Mondelez is already trying to fill American shops with Mexican made Oreo’s,” said Smith. “Mondelez calls Oreo their ‘billion dollar cookie’ but if you’re manufacturing such a valuable cookie, why would you disenfranchise families to make it even more valuable?”

Clark told the People’s World that the boycott has been hard for him and his family to come to grips with.

“For 40 years I made Oreo’s, that iconic variety is over 100 years old. Americans created that cookie. The thing that hurts is when I went to the grocery story with my wife and kids, they had Oreos on sale buy-one-get-one, so my wife without thinking said to ‘get four.’ My son said ‘Mom, no, we have to check the label.’ Normally, I’d say they’re good cookies but now working parents have to face a choice. For 40 years, I’ve made them and loved them. That’s heartbreaking.”

Photo: Courtesy Chicago Jobs With Justice.



Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.